You can’t blame The New York Times for lagging behind.
They’ve spent so many years arguing for the abolition of the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), the exam that qualifies New York City students for entry into the eight Specialized High Schools believed to be the best, it’s inevitable they’d be a day late and a dollar short to the discussion of what’s really responsible for the low numbers of Black and Hispanic students accepted. And what’s necessary to fix those numbers.
On January 25, 2022, the paper of record finally considered the possibility that it may not be pure racism which keeps the Specialized High Schools majority Asian, while the majority of the overall public school system is Hispanic and Black.
Decades ago, when crime and socioeconomic conditions were far graver than they are today, Black and Latino teenagers passed the examination in great numbers. In 1981, nearly two-thirds of Brooklyn Tech’s students were Black and Latino, and that percentage hovered at 50 percent for another decade. Black and Latino students account for 10 percent of the students at Bronx Science; that percentage was more than twice as high in the 1970s and ’80s. To understand this decline involves a trek back through decades of policy choices, as city officials, pushed by an anti-tracking movement, rolled back accelerated and honors programs and tried to reform gifted programs, particularly in nonwhite districts.
My African-American husband entered another Specialized High School, Stuyvesant, in the fall of 1981. He’s now a middle school math and physics teacher. With some very strong opinions about what’s gone wrong for Black students between then and now.
His opinions are in line with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, whom the NYT reassures “is Black and resides on the political left” before quoting him that, “The most clear failure has been establishing an accessible pipeline for Black and Latino students. In the past, gifted-and-talented programs in middle schools have been a reliable pathway.’”
And yet, Bill de Blasio, NYC Mayor from 2014 to 2021, abolished both screened middle school Honors programs and elementary school Gifted & Talented programs in the name of equity.
De Blasio’s own son attended the above-mentioned Brooklyn Tech, but perhaps the mayor was unaware that, as the NYT writes: The (SHSAT) can be problematic, as it requires knowledge of algebra, which is not offered to many middle school students.
It’s easier to believe Hizzoner’s ignorance when we hear from students who attended the prep program he instituted. These students called it “substandard. The teachers did not even know what the exam consisted of…. They handed us out-of-date workbooks.”
As we’ve been saying for literally years, the lack of Black and Hispanic students at SHSAT schools is not the fault of the test. It’s the fault of the substandard education the majority of students receive prior to taking it.
The fewer G&T and Honors programs, the fewer students have the chance to learn the Algebra necessary to do well on the SHSAT. It’s really that simple.
Advocates of scrapping the test in favor of a holistic model insist that’s the ticket to admitting a more diverse student body.
Yet, research suggests that prioritizing factors like interviews and portfolios over test scores does little to bolster the admission rates for Black and Hispanic students. It does, however, lower the numbers of Asian students admitted. And raises the number of white ones.
Mike Mascetti of the Science School Initiative relates that the lower-income students he works with often have a harder time getting into a school that uses multiple criteria for admissions than a school that relies exclusively on the SHSAT. “You would think a kid from East Harlem would have an easier time getting into (a screened school) than Stuy, but that’s not necessarily the case.”
Unique extracurricular activities and photogenic community service projects come with a cost few poor and non-English speaking families can afford.
As The Times notes, “Many immigrant working families don’t have the time to get a portfolio together for their kids.”
NYC’s new mayor, Eric Adams, made noises of rolling back de Blasio’s initiatives. His Schools Chancellor, David Banks, has pledged to not only reinstate G&T programs, but to open more of them, specifically in communities which currently don’t have any.
In the meantime, NYC middle schools remain unscreened; students will be accepted via lottery, not the grades and test scores of previous years. 6th graders coming in at different stages of preparation will make it more difficult to teach everyone at the SHSAT prep level. Which could mean a return to the sort of segregated classrooms the unscreening was designed to avoid.
Despite Adams’ campaign promises, there has also been no word on whether there will be G&T admissions this year, how they will work, or which schools will host programs (some shuttled theirs even before de Blasio told them to).
While G&T accepts the majority of their new pupils in Kindergarten, in the past, students could also apply for 1st through 3rd grade entry. There has been no clarification on whether that will continue to be an option. Such an approach is, once again, most likely to hurt those applicants, especially minority, poor and immigrant ones, who didn’t know about the Kindergarten test or had time to prepare for it. For them, along with anyone daring to be a late-bloomer, there will be no second chances.
And yet, G&T and Honors programs are precisely what NYC needs if we are to go back to the days of diverse representation at the Specialized High Schools.
Even the NYT finally admits that.